lundi 23 novembre 2009

"New York guitars"

(CRI, 1995)

The electric guitar was born into a hostile climate… When the first amplified guitars were put on the market in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the first significant public campaigns against ever-increasing city noise were also taking place. Among the anti-cacophony mottos: “The silence of each assures rest for us all.” Thus, from its inception, the electric guitar was a symbol of noise, imprecision and rebellion. Its weapon: amplification, the enemy of restful sleep. Though the New York composers and improvisers on this record coax everything from dissonance and drones to blues and jazz out of their guitars, they all have one thing in common: they are by nature defiant, undermining so-called serious music by making it on an electric guitar.
Playing avant-garde music on an electric guitar is nothing new. The tradition in New York goes back at least to minimalist composer La Monte Young writing For Guitar in 1958 (which was later transposed to electric guitar) and Sonny Sharrock making a name for himself as a free-jazz guitarist in the 1960s. What sets the composers here apart is that they grew up in an era of rock and roll. Some of them were even playing in rock bands before finding other outlets for their musical experimentation. With all the baggage of rock history now attached to the electric guitar, separating it from the tradition of rock (or blues or jazz) has become not an act of appropriation but subversion. So when Mark Howell flips through sixty-five years of guitar styles and techniques in nine minutes and Judy Dunaway composes with the noise inherent in the technology of amplification, they are not celebrating the history of guitar music and technology but exploring its limits.
Is there a “New York Guitar” school of style? Some would like to think so. After all, New York became a melting pot of influential experimental guitarists in the late 1970s, with guitar symphonists Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, noise makers Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of the acclaimed underground rock band Sonic Youth, mathematically-based composer and improviser Elliot Sharp, and no-wave cacophonists Arto Lindsay and Pat Place, all circulating in the same scene. But here, you’ll find no discernible line linking John Kings’s blues, David First’s microtonal play and Loren MazzaCane Connor’s abstractions.
If there is anything these New York composer/guitarists have in common it is the environment they live in, not the musical terrain they’re mapping. The noise of the city—which continues unhindered despite the noise-pollution fighters of the 1920s and 1930s—has a significant effect on the psyche of musicians. It raises their threshold for extreme sounds while exacerbating their need to avoid them. The result is that composers either incorporate the cacophony of the city into their pieces or try to escape from it altogether. Examples of the former are Ken Valitsky merging guitar, typewriter, ringing phones, sirens, and other computer-modified sounds in Meaning-Less, Phil Kline evoking the Doppler effect created by passing car horns in A Fantasy on One Note, and Nick Didkovsky building a distorted, pointillist collage in Flykiller. Examples of the latter are Carolyn Master retreating into the colors of the inner world that is En Masse and Brandon Ross meditating on the purity of the jazz saxophone in O, People. As the lyrics to one anonymous blues tune go:

You can take the guitar outside,
You can take the guitar inside
Jes don’t take it no place, young man,
Where there ain’t no ear open wide.

Neil Strauss


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